When The Doors Defied Ed Sullivan

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The exact moment that Jim Morrison sang the word “higher” on The Ed Sullivan Show, September 17, 1967 (Photo: SOFA Entertainment; used with permission)

On September 17, 1967, The Doors defied Ed Sullivan and the CBS censors by refusing to change the word “higher” while performing their #1 hit, “Light My Fire,” on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Recalled Doors’ drummer John Densmore, “‘You will never do this show again,’ Ed fumed after we’d directly disobeyed his censorship requirements. Jim turned to him and remarked, ‘Hey, that’s okay—we just did The Ed Sullivan Show.’”

Doors’ guitarist Robby Krieger’s reaction was, “We thought they were joking. Who were they kidding? Wanting us to change the lyrics on the number one song in America? We decided to just do the song as-is and maybe they would forget all about it. What could they do? After all, it was live television! So, yeah, we never played The Ed Sullivan Show again. But we didn’t care.”Watch the performance below.

It may seem ridiculous today, but The Doors’ action created an absolute furor and media firestorm. Almost anything goes on today’s television, but America’s prudishness about drugs, sexuality and “the counterculture” in the 1960s was extreme by modern standards. In fact, just a decade earlier, Lucy [Ball] and Desi [Arnaz] had to sleep in twin beds, and the word “pregnant” couldn’t be uttered on television.

“Light My Fire” was not the first time The Ed Sullivan Show, a Sunday-night viewing ritual in American homes, had censored pop music performers—Elvis and the Rolling Stones included. The Doors’ famous moment was dramatized in the 1991 Oliver Stone film The Doors.

As Doors’ co-founder and keyboardist Ray Manzarek explained in an interview filmed in 1991, Jim Morrison and his bandmates decided they would not buckle to the network censors. Manzarek promised the CBS executive just before the performance that they would go ahead and replace the offending lyric. But they would be performing live, so the Doors knew that they could get away with singing the controversial song as it was written. In the process, the Doors won their battle with CBS and made television history.

Until producers at SOFA Entertainment decided to dig into the Sullivan production files in Sept. 2017, they had no idea what lyrics the network was suggesting Morrison sing instead of the song’s infamous line.

Andrew Solt of SOFA Entertainment, the company that owns the Sullivan archive, relates how the discovery occurred. “Greg Vines and I discussed how good it would be if we could find the word CBS wanted Morrison to sing instead of ‘higher.’ When Greg returned from the vault, he was elated. “You won’t believe it. We not only have the word, we have the whole line! Instead of ‘Girl we couldn’t get much higher’ Jim was asked to sing, ‘Girl, there’s nothing I require.’ It’s laughable. Imagine Morrison singing ‘require’ instead of ‘higher’?”

The Doors performing “Light My Fire” on The Ed Sullivan Show, September 17, 1967 (Photo: SOFA Entertainment; used with permission)

JAM, Inc.’s Jeff Jampol, manager of the Doors, and of the Morrison Estate, was also surprised by the discovery of the absurd suggested replacement lyrics. “It’s fascinating to get an inside peek at how television, the media and corporate culture continually conspired to censor art and free expression, all in the name of selling more cereal, while at the same time, they were coopting pop culture themselves (and definitely not for the betterment of art). But even more scintillating to me is to take a look back at a time when artists took a stand, not only for their art, but for their ideals and for freedom of expression—their own, as well as others’. It’ a refreshing reminder and contrast to so many of today’s mainstream artists who seemingly refuse to take a stand, to speak out against injustice, or who are unwilling to put their wallet (and sometimes, their entire career) on the line to take a stand for anything, let alone freedom of artistic expression. Thank God for Jim Morrison; thank God for the Doors.”

Watch the infamous clip of The Doors on The Ed Sullivan Show

Related: On the very same evening, The Who made a memorable appearance on the Smothers Brothers’ TV show

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7 Comments so far

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  1. Jack
    #1 Jack 8 November, 2017, 03:33

    Man, have we changed or what? I just finished watching an episode of “American Horor Story” on TV. I think I lost count at 6 uses of the word “f**k”. I think one of the stranger facts is that Lucy & Desi had to sleep in separate twin beds, and the word pregnant couldn’t be used on TV. How exactly did they think people reproduced? What’s crazier is, we went from that to all the references to sex and drinking on M*A*S*H in just ten years.

    Reply this comment
    • Pelirrojo
      Pelirrojo 18 September, 2019, 04:43

      I can explain the huge shift in perceptions for you in five words:

      The baby boomers took over.


      Reply this comment
  2. Gunner
    #2 Gunner 3 May, 2018, 03:37

    I was confused by Robby’s comment that they never went back on the Ed Sullivan show, because I thought I remembered a video of them doing “Touch Me” on the show.

    When I went to YouTube to try to find it, I discovered that video was from the Smothers Brothers show, but there’s a video with Ed Sullivan introducing The Doors doing “People Are Strange,” which had to be after the “Light My Fire” incident.

    So now I’m even more confused. Thanks, Internet!

    Reply this comment
    • Afrikan
      Afrikan 19 September, 2018, 05:14

      People are strange were on the same night before they perfomed light my fire 🙂

      Reply this comment
  3. GRod
    #3 GRod 17 September, 2022, 13:50

    Buddy Holly defied Sullivan much earlier and he was banned as well. Buddy didnt care either.

    Reply this comment
  4. BeatleStone
    #4 BeatleStone 17 September, 2022, 15:31

    Ed Sullivan is as important to rock-n-roll as the Doors but getting uptight about saying higher on the show was silly.

    Reply this comment
  5. Guy
    #5 Guy 21 December, 2022, 04:09

    Mick Jagger did buckle to Sullivan and dang “Let’s spend some time together” instead of “Let’s spend the night together”.

    I was just watching Ozzyman on YouTube and the video was live TV fails. I think it was 1993 and BBC had Rage Against the Machine playing a live concert. They were told not to curse. Y’all know how “Killing in the name” ends. So, de la Rocha sings “I won’t do what ya tell me” about four times. Then he starts yelling the words the way they’re supposed to be, replacing the two words he had removed those four time, while flicking off the camera. Perfect, because the song is delivering the message.

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